In “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville wrote about a “Nantucket Sleighride,” a term used by Nantucket whalemen to describe what happens immediately following the harpooning of a whale. The whale, distressed by the harpoon, attempts to flee and thus drags the boat along with it. The run lasts for as long as the whale can swim before it becomes exhausted.
Well, the seminar which I’m auditing at Bowdoin this fall (“Living Deliberately”) often feels like a Nantucket Sleighride, despite the serene setting: a room on the first floor of Massachusetts Hall, the College’s oldest building.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, our brave band of inquirers (10 students, three auditors and the professor) gather around a long table and go about our appointed task: discovering what it means to “live deliberately” by wrestling with the ideas of great thinkers and writers down through the ages. 

The authors on the prodigious reading list run the gamut: Thoreau, Kant, Friedrich Schiller, Michel Foucault, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Mann, E.M. Forster, Sapphire, Emmanuel Levinas, Soren Kierkegaard, Ignazio Silone, Nadine Gordimer, Tracy Kidder and Bill McKibben. We’ve read everything from scholarly treatises—some accessible, some, er, not—to readable novels to compelling nonfiction.  I haven’t totaled the number of pages because I don’t want to know the answer.

But—a big but—the course is always fascinating, never boring. And much of the credit goes to the masterful teacher, David Collings, professor of English. Collings combines the passion of Pavarotti with the conducting skill of Toscanini. Every student—and auditor—speaks up at least once in every class. Collings treats every offering by every person with respect, sometimes exclaiming, “That’s brilliant!” or “Thanks for taking us there,”  or, simply, “Yes!” He skillfully ties in the ideas of the writers discussed earlier with the writer of the day.  And he does so with delight, in the spirit of play. And that’s the operative word: play.

In 2004, Collings gave the Bowdoin convocation address: On Learning as Deep Play.  An excerpt from that talk gives a sense of the philosophy behind the man and the message behind the course.  “But to participate in this kind of deep play, to embrace the unknown, to dance with an unforeseeable future, is not a matter of what we normally consider recklessness. It’s not about rebellion, or frivolous play, or drinking a keg of beer all by yourself. Paradoxically, once you deepen play by risking yourself, you alter the nature of the risk you take: the gamble only works if you’re paying attention, intent on coming to grasp that unknown thing; it transforms you only if you are truly at stake in what you ask. The more intent you are in your gamble, the greater the discovery. This kind of risk, it seems, is a form of serious play—so serious, in fact, that if you aren’t giving your full attention on every level of your being to what you are learning, you may miss the moment when your real calling becomes clear. You wouldn’t want to be in the position, as an old saying has it, of gaining the whole world and losing your soul.”
The students in this seminar get this message; they thrive on the challenge; they love the play. Put simply, they’re amazing. I’ve asked some students how the demands of this course compare with their other courses. They acknowledge that the reading load is a bit heavy, but claim that the course is very manageable. I also asked if they minded having auditors present in class. Surprisingly, they like it—or at least they say they do. One student said, “I really like it when auditors speak up in class, because they have more to say about life than we do. They’ve lived more of it.”

Even Collings, himself, admits that he’s still wrestling with the questions discussed in this course. “Who am I?...What really matters?...What can I learn from the past?...What does it mean to be human?... How should I spend my life, my energies, my gifts?”
After every class, I take the long walk across the quad with one of the other auditors, a fellow member of the Bowdoin Class of 1964. We recap the ideas discussed that day. We marvel at the professor and the students. And we head home to prepare for the next class, just hoping we can survive the next time the harpoon finds its mark.

David Treadwell is a Brunswick writer and reader for Bowdoin’s Office of Admissions. He can be reached at This piece was reprinted with permission from the Brunswick Times Record.